What’s a Bookwyrm to do? Alina knows that she has been reborn, that she was once a world-bestriding legend in a time of desperate danger. But when an ally of her past imperils her new life and new family, she’ll have to scrape together her former power and magic if she wants to save them. Starting with talking, toddling and the dark art of the potty.
Somewhere between light that hurt my eyes and what seemed like an unending hunger, I lost myself in dreams.
The Bodhisattva Anointed by Dark Water was perhaps the most dangerous remaining of that select company who deemed themselves the lords over death itself. Ghosts, ancient and potent. Once they had been among the greatest… and perhaps the vilest… of the Exalted. In death they were something much worse.
His fleets had scoured the seas around Onyx for a thousand miles, erasing the living save for those willing to become slaves to the dead. Leviathan himself had risen to do battle and I had saluted the mighty Chosen of Luna for his last stand… but it had been his last stand.
While much of that fleet was scattered, one flotilla stood guard in the waters around the Bodhisattva’s stronghold and on the decks of their flagship I duelled against Moray Darktide.
The ship was sinking, carrying the crew of corpses back to what should have been their resting place all along. The renegade’s short, heavy daiklave clashed with my dire lance. He was mighty, I will give him that: a privateer of Skullstone turned Dawn Caste, chosen by the Unconquered Sun only to place his awesome potential at the disposal of one of our worst enemies.
I blame the parents… in the sense that the Most High really should have paid more attention to who he was exalting.
Moray paused to take breath upon his quarterdeck. “You’re skilled, Bookwyrm. Everything I have heard and more.
I shrugged and gave him a bitter smile. “I hear a ‘but’.”
He drew a deep breath. “Not going to try to reason me? Convince me that I made the wrong choice?”
“You’ve had a hundred years to reconsider. If that hasn’t persuaded you, nothing I say will.”
The Solar nodded. “And the same for you. My master’s cause is inevitable.”
I twirled my spear, cutting away what was left of the rigging. “Yeah yeah. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. Come along, you would-be deathknight. Let’s see if he spares you a dark exaltation when I’m done carving the Sun’s out of you.”
He laughed, for he had wounded me four times so far and his supernatural skill with a sword was such that I had not managed the same. And then he came at me, sword ablaze.
I didn’t try to dodge or parry - although I had managed both a thousand times for every time his soulsteel blade had touched me. Instead I went for him, using the length of my spear.
My every blow was perfect, a deadly invocation of power that was forbidden by heaven. If the halls in which fate was meted out and from which auditors were dispatched to enforce heaven’s writ were not currently on fire, I might be in trouble.
His every parry was also perfect, supernatural grace and precision such as only the mightiest of the Most High’s champions can show. Such a duel has rarely been seen.
And yet, I had an advantage, for I have sparred with and fought against his kind before.
He parried six times, like the master swordsman that he was, in the time it took for my heart to beat twice.
But in that same brief interval, I had struck ten times.
Darktide hit the deck behind me once, twice, thrice and then the fourth and fifth parts of him a moment later.
If the Bodhisattva Anointed by Dark Water cared in any manner about Moray Darktide’s death, then I saw no sign of it. Perhaps the ghost would rise to serve the Deathlord in death as he had in life, but that was no longer my concern. A subtle whisper snatched away the Solar’s imperishable shard and I did not look for that which had distorted the designs of the Great Maker.
Since the death of Urwl in the Primordial War, the greatest of all the Elemental Dragons of Earth - all the Elemental Dragons in fact - was the Kukla. His power rivalled the Celestial Incarnae, and his madness the worst of the curse-ridden Solar god-kings of the First Age. Eons ago he had been confined by water and fire, bound into an underground volcano deep beneath the Western Ocean.
The charm I’d used to slay the renegade Solar invoked him, challenged bindings laid by one of the Incarna and by Gaia, the Mother of Creation. Twelve locks bound it, each guarded by an Elemental who could have ruled an entire Court of their kind. Yet these were mostly to keep others from reaching him and disturbing his slumber. The true security was that the greatest of all the Incarnae had summoned and bound the Kukla to sleep until he was called for. For the final days of Creation, when armageddon would rage and the Kukla’s final dance would herald birth and rebirth.
So it was prophesied, anyway.
To invoke the Kukla was to risk breaking that sleep. Thus, my art was a sin, a deed most dire. A bell whose every chime had a good chance of waking him.
I’d just used it repeatedly, practically upon his doorstep.
The sea to the west bulged upwards, a mountain of water rising upwards as something more inevitable than even death arose.
“Wakey wakey,” I murmured and cast aside my material form as the rising ocean smashed what was left of the warship beneath me. Doing so drained me of my last reserves of essence, all but that bound to my panoply, but that was fine. I didn’t need it now, or at least, no more than the comparative trickle I could draw from the hearthstones I carried. In time, a few hours, I would be fully replenished. I might even have that time!
Upon the isle, the living screamed either in despair or anticipation, the dead bureaucrats abandoned their brushes to stare up at something to end even their nigh immortal ennui.
Tens of miles high, a mountain of water to rival even the greatest mountain in all Creation. Were the sun’s chariot not forever dimmed, its shadow might have reached the continent to our east.
And then the Kukla burst from it, twelve legs striking clouds from the sky, beard and horns storms in their own right.
An inconceivable mass of waters crashed down beneath it, forming a tsunami that would rush across Creation before us.
Onyx vanished beneath the waves without even a whisper, the rest of the island an instant later. I suspected the rest of the archipelago would fare no better.
And then the two great eyes of the Kukla focused on the irritant that had presumed to draw its wrath.
In spirit, I am a dragon. Ivory of scale, sapphire of eyes, copper of whisker. A dragon of the earth, like the Kukla, but smaller and less grand in every way. It’s eyes themselves seemed larger than my entire body.
I offered an ancient and profane gesture in greeting and fled, racing the waves as they thundered away from the ruins of what had once been a civilisation of living and dead co-existing in something approaching harmony.
The sky seemed to split behind me as the Kukla roared and gave chase.
I had laughed at that thought, for black humour was all that was left when the flames of two suns – gold and green – guttered and died together. Now it was a far more immediate and menacing prospect. Not merely of death, but of failure.
I had agreed - boasted even - that I would dance the razor’s edge, battling those who could not be defeated, calling up that which I could not put down and throw defiance into the face of all reason and sanity.
I felt more alive than I ever had before. Each moment felt infinitely precious.
I hurtled towards the birthing place of the sun, forerunner of a force of destruction such as Creation had never known since the War of Bronze and Gold. And behind that wave, maw wide with appetite to devour my most impudent self, came the Kukla.
The islands of the west disappeared behind us, consumed by what I had unleashed.
A day later, perhaps? Time had no meaning when twin suns had died next to each other, emerald and gold united briefly in one cause for the first time since the Exalted first arose, only to gutter and perish. The chariot that flew above even us was increasingly erratic.
Icebergs were swept up in the tsunami that I preceded. To the south I saw the coastal islands were devoured - only Ratjul large enough for anyone to survive. It shielded somewhat of the cost beyond it - ruined cities of the Maker’s folk, fought over by the horde of living and dead cannibal-islanders who had resented deeply that their ancient raiding preserves had been held securely by anyone.
Further away, no doubt the Blessed Isle and the Slave Coast that faced it were being similarly hammered. I saw the vast ice mass that covered much of the mouth of the White Sea shatter like glass, merely adding to the wave as it swept onwards.
Yet the greater ice sheet to the north survived, though cracked and torn for hundreds of miles inland by that massive blow.
And there, far from the ocean, Kukla still upon my heels, I found the ruined city of Tchoto-kili, one of so many lost to the various disasters that had battered the North - perhaps worse than anywhere else in Creation - over the millennia. I had added one last insult to that roster, I thought.
But in the city, there was a gate that I knew well. I descended at a frantic pace and dived through it, the great panels swinging obediently open for me.
There was no rational way for the mountainous Kukla to follow me through that portal, but it did so anyway.
All was according to the ‘keikaku’. Even those parts that my comrades could not know until it was too late.
Heaven spread before us, the ancient and vast city of Yu-Shan.
It had been the palatial estate of the Primordials, then the capital of the Celestial Pantheon. Ancient and mighty, corrupt and glorious, first… and now fallen.
Memories of the city overwhelm me, leaving me plunging back and forth in my recollections. Was it later or earlier that I saw Yurgen Kaneko fall at last, my rival and my lieutenant, the old man who had smiled at the overturning of traditions that saw a Chosen of the Unconquered serve a mere son of Urwl. The Salient of the Unconquered Sun lay in ruins, one of the mightiest strongholds in Heaven laid waste by the armies that stormed in through gateways writ by divine power and those carved by those who would drag us all to oblivion.
It was before this, I think.
Yes, I remember now. I remember the heavens violated by death and those never born and never fully dead haunted its streets, re-enacting the lives they had led and trapping others in nightmares. The portals were locked open and hosts of demons, living and dead, streamed through them.
It was the death of everything. A demand for quietus, for eternal peace, and for hateful revenge on a world that had turned upon its creators, worshippers who had cast down those they were wrought to idolise.
And yet even those fighting to devour, to survive, to spite the fate that seemed unavoidable, paused in their battles to stare upwards as the Kukla and I made our entry. And their screams grew ten-fold as the twelve-legged dragon set foot where once, as a lesser being, he had once been made welcome.
Now he carved a path of annihilation through what had once been merely destruction.
The office of bestowed power was a ruin, open to the sky with its cabinets torn open and looted, but the tools they had once held and the custodian were elsewhere now. Nothing but vapour was left when we passed it by.
A thousand streets, a million palaces. Armies of the dead, legions of the living - damned and mortal fighting side-by-side in perhaps that one cause that could have wed them together.
Their defiance warmed me, but I knew that ultimately it amounted to nothing but spitting into the face of futility.
When these battles ended, there would be nothing left.
Yu-Shan would crumble, plunged into the Well of Oblivion, dragging with it Creation. Malfeas was already undone and what it would mean for the Sea of Chaos neither I nor any of my Circle could calculate.
No, we had reached the last moments before the final nadir and only death would remain...
There would be nothing.
Save a faint sliver of hope that I hid in my heart, unspoken.
We all have our gifts. Mine was time.
Here was a working, a plan that had been calculated to the nth degree. My baiting of the Kukla, guiding its rampage to distract and delight those who dreamed of destruction…
For the most part, they expected me to join them. A few knew that some laws are inflexible and that the rule of sacrifice is immutable. Only the sorcerers knew that in this case, our code – do not die – could not be followed.
I had not confided to them that I was a cheating cheater who would cheat if he could. If they didn’t know me that well.
The Kukla screamed in elemental hunger and somewhere inside me, a count crept upwards.
Five poles and seven scales, plucked away from the very hide of the beast that craved my death. Nigh a thousand shards of power to guard it. My children by the ten thousand to guide them.
And hidden citadels, dragged by the children of fate to where the rest would make a new world for those hidden within.
The heart of the eternal city, the Jade Pleasure Dome, reared miles into the sky. It almost rivalled the Kukla for size and hordes fought around it, less as organised bodies and more in fanatical desire to possess and enjoy the pleasures within for whatever little time remained to them.
They at least were mostly spared for their last nihilistic orgies and games as I led the Kukla south, the gigantic dragon gaining on me though I was moving so fast that even its roars and tirades could barely catch me.
I saw a plaza of gold and crimson floor, one that I had seen bedecked for festivals and triumphs. From the edge of heaven to its heart I had raced, for here were the ‘front gates’, the portals leading out to the Blessed Isle. Thirteen arches surrounded the plaza, twelve for the known exits and the last, the Calibration Gate locked open, control of it usurped to allow the first invasion force in.
The plaza had been gold alone before the bloodbath as the Aerial Legion of the heavens defended Yu Shan with every power at their command. They had turned the space into a killing ground and, without treason, they might even have won.
The war had moved on, the plaza deserted.
I chose one of the other gates and made my exit. The sounds behind me suggested that there wouldn’t be much left of the bloodied stones in a moment.
I entered the skies above Creation, miles high as I burst away from the summit of Mount Meru.
A black dragon awaited me, coiled and lurking like betrayal. If it wasn’t for the Kukla behind me, I might have been impressed by its size and power. Although probably not. I was a little jaded when it came to such matters.
“I know,” I greeted him. “It is your nature.”
He grinned at me in delight and despair, springing up to join me. “My congratulations, were I to permit it, you might even escape through the door that has opened for you. However, I have in mind to -”
I laughed. “O first and foremost in the breaking of oaths, I am about to break faith with my Circle.”
The Primordial drew up, seeming affronted. And then it cackled wildly and slowed down, sparing me.
And in so doing, doomed himself.
An instant later, the Kukla’s jaws closed upon the Ebon Dragon, ground down upon him with fangs to dwarf a war galley and then flung his body aside. Living or dead, I know not. I count him amused though. Treachery, deception and betrayal
Someone had to close the door behind my comrades. Someone had to initiate the orgy of apocalypse that would convince the damned lords of the underworld that all had perished with them. And that someone must not escape or it would give the game away. The Ebon Dragon had understood that, had planned to betray us all… and to complete our plan.
I had understood it too, and that I - accounted the most loyal and steadfast of men - would do so had entertained the arch traitor enough that he would allow me to play this out. He might even on some level admired that I’d timed to lure him into the reach of my pursuer.
I screamed out into the sky, ascending to the heights of the night. The Kukla tore out of the ruined gates and the world roared as its shadows twisted at the essence flows that lay beneath us.
Nothing in all Creation can destroy like the Kukla.
But in the hundred years I have been Exalted, there has never been anyone who could cheat fate like the Bookwyrm. There might, just might, be a way out. A way to join them in that mere pocket of Creation that we had divided from the main, a lifeboat as it were, for what would remain.
Nothing is as vital to the existence of our world than the flows of essence that stream from the heights of Meru to the mouth of the river to our east.
Let the light of the sun cast the Kukla’s shadow upon those flows…
I clawed upwards, slowing as it grew harder and harder to gain purchase upon the winds beneath the dome of heaven. The Kukla’s hot breath came at my tail.
Every part of me ached with pain. How long had I done this? Time beyond measuring, for the count of hours was gone.
And the suns were dead. What then, was I waiting for? Or rather, for whom.
Creation, it is said, is but one of her many souls. She is mother to us all.
And thus, as an apocalypse raged beneath us, all mankind’s brightest gone, I spat out the coin she had entrusted to me so long ago.
“Gaia,” I croaked. My anima flared around me, a brilliant white that stretched a thousand yards away. “Witness me!”
And in my last moment…
For one brief moment…
A new sun was born to cast a shadow…
Creation broke around us and...
Is it any surprise that I screamed and howled both before and after I woke?
I hungered. I wept. I rejoiced and I despaired.
Some eternity later my eyes blinked as wakefulness returned. “Uaaa,” I exclaimed.
Eloquent, I know. I have something of a way with words.
A giant lifted me and I felt dizzy for a moment before the ascent became a soothing rocking motion. I was warm, I was… well hungry enough to eat but not so ravenous that I must. There was a humiliating moment of someone patting at my nether and a sigh of relief that there was no moistness there.
She (I could tell) carried me out of the sunlight and cradled me with soothing noises that distracted my attention from thought and left me unfocused.
I parted my lips, smiled and yawned. Sleep beckoned. Would I dream again of the past?
So be it. The fact I could dream meant I lived. The fact I lived meant I had cheated both the designs of the spirits and of my well-meaning friends. Oh, and that I’d saved enough for there to be a new world to live in.
I’d be sure to rub that in their faces once I found them.
I admit, I had rather planned to skip the infant years. Being a baby had not been part of my calculations. No, I’d figured on skipping to the good stuff. But I didn’t need to tell them that. No, whatever I’d accomplished, that was the plan all along.
Don’t tell them that, okay?
In hindsight, I may not have been terribly coherent with my previous explanation. Please excuse me, reincarnation is not an exact science.
Well, actually, reincarnation is a fairly well regulated and designed process. It’s just… well, it’s been a little bit broken for a few thousand years and the end of the world and all its attendant processes including but not limited to the reincarnation human souls can be a bit disruptive. And I was kind of trying to force an exploit through it that it really wasn’t designed for.
So… some errors may be allowed for, surely. It’s not the sort of thing that one can experiment with repeatedly – at least unless you’re going to experiment on other’s souls, which is unethical in the extreme.
The simple fact that I remembered who I was is cause for a pat on the back. I would have done that myself but honestly, my coordination wasn’t up to it as I lay in a cradle. Or up to much of anything, really. I don’t recall my earliest years in my last life all that well, and I don’t tend to be all that involved in the infant years of my own offspring, but it seems that baby muscles are approximately as effective as wet noodles until they get some exercise in to build them up.
And yes, I was something of a distant father. There were reasons, so I feel I was justified in that, but it’s certainly nothing to be proud of. I cared, in my way, and I have made my peace with my failings over the years. Most of my children seem to forgive me, and those who do not… well, they have the right not to.
I wonder if any of them are still alive? It would be somewhat ironic if I were my own descendant in this life.
Also, more or less inevitable, had things gone entirely to plan, but they evidently had not.
Permit me to lecture a moment upon certain aspects of Exaltation. The most famous and storied are of course, the bestowed Exaltations – the celestials, in other words. Souls chosen and favoured by one of the Celestial Incarna or at least by criteria they set up. In the fullness of time and at some fateful moment, they receive a grant of power that elevates them above most of humanity in some ways. Not including morality or sanity, unfortunately, but at least they’re no longer cursed to be impaired in that respect.
(The Neverborn were rather upset about their curse being lifted, but they did kill almost all of us so let’s call that a wash.)
When the bearer of bestowed power dies, their shard which contains the power, returns to the celestial spirit who oversees such matters, until the power is given to another. Along with the power come some memories of the more puissant of the former bearers, essentially something of a tutorial on how to use that power. Any biases and prejudices carried over were an undocumented feature but a feature, not a flaw. Most died fighting demons, and the Incarnae wanted their Exalted to fight demons, so a dislike for demons is desirable.
I, on the other hand, am a recipient of inherited power. Terrestrial Exaltation, by its nature, passes through the bloodline. The potential to share in that power is passed to one’s children – which is one reason I have so many children. It is cold-blooded, but Creation needed protectors and I had at the time an unrivalled ability to sire such protectors.
I had still wept for those of my children who had died before me.
I wept again as I thought of my dead children, to the distraction of those caring for me in this state. My hearing was getting better and I was fairly sure one of the women was my mother. I smiled at her as thanks for her wiping my face and consoling me. The local dialect was close to several I had spoken before, but not entirely the same.
Yawn. I rested my head upon her shoulder and…
Sometime later I woke, again in my cradle. Staying awake for any length of time was also difficult for me as a baby, which I had more or less expected. I do have some experience with children, just not as much as I feel I ought.
Yes, anyway. Inherited power. There was no shard of power for us. It was in our blood, thus ‘Dragon-Blooded’. Given the prevalence of my descendants among those escaping to the new world we sought to create from the wreckage of Creation, there was a very good chance that if I was reborn as a terrestrial exalt that I would be at least distantly descended from myself.
If, of course, I was going to exalt in this life. Which was an open question.
My plan had been to form a pseudo-shard of power with my soul; and have it seek out someone destined to receive an inherited exaltation. They would therefore receive a measure of my power and my memories – a gift to the future. Their own soul and memories would dominate, naturally – I had no intention of attempting to usurp someone else’s life. Just to provide some guidance where it might be needed and perhaps do some gloating from the grave.
Petty, I know, but I’m like that sometimes. Anyway, matters clearly hadn’t gone to plan and instead my soul had clearly entered the normal reincarnation process so I’d be starting from scratch. At least I had my own body, unimpressive as it might be at the moment, which was more than I had expected. On the other hand, there was no assurance that this life was destined to receive exaltation.
There was nothing I could do about that, really. Fate can be cheated, but destiny is another thing entirely. But a new life beckoned and I didn’t seem to be off to a bad start.
All I could see at the time was the cradle and the ceiling above it. I could hear other children and they sometimes passed my field of vision, so I guessed I was being raised in some sort of communal creche. The room wasn’t very fancy, but it was better than some peasant hut so I wasn’t in some primitive backwater. Hopefully whatever the new world was, there were few of those. Poverty isn’t entirely eradicable in my experience, but it can be kept to a bare minimum and some sort of standards.
My mother seemed healthy, if perhaps a little tired. I regretted that I might be adding to that by waking in the nights but she wasn’t the only person caring for the children so I doubt I was all that much to blame. What I wasn’t sure was whether this was an extended family or perhaps just a community that shared the responsibility of caring for their children.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with the latter. When I cared for my own children, it was generally in mixed creches shared with my colleagues and comrades’ families. I had a warm sensation at the thought that the custom might have continued into…
Dammit, that warm sensation was something else entirely.
I waved my hands as much as I could for attention, but finally had to settle for wailing until someone picked me up and discovered I’d soaked my nappy.
Bladder control, I miss you so very much. Isn’t there some sort of exercise I can do to get you back sooner?
Long before I had managed that matter, other matters changed.
One morning – I think it was a morning unless I’d slept most of a day and it was late afternoon – my mother plucked me out of my cradle and changed my nappy. I wasn’t sure why – I hadn’t soiled it yet. I’d grown more familiar with the local dialect though, enough to be sure her name was Alina and be more confident that she was my mother.
I was certainly referred to as her child by some of the other adults but that could have meant she’d adopted me or something. She might be an aunt who’d taken me in after my birth mother died, for example. I was aware I was probably overthinking the matter, but I had plenty of time and little else to do. Also, no one sat down and provided a useful degree of exposition to confirm details of my family background.
Not that they didn’t talk to me… at me, rather. But no one expects babies to understand so why explain anything? I was most amused by the oldest caretaker, who mostly minded us at night. Medra had a sweet and kindly tone, but tended to ramble on with a stream of consciousness that included the fact that she thought I was a rather ugly baby with pale and unhealthy skin. Also, my hair – which had initially fallen out to my alarm – was growing back in far too thick. At least I had round and pinchable cheeks.
She did pinch at them very delicately so I allowed that. Just little tickles, really. I don’t think she actually disliked me, she just didn’t see any need to filter what she said to someone that wouldn’t understand and was keeping her up all night.
Fair enough. I rewarded her with smiles and giggles, the only currency I had on offer.
In addition to my fresh nappy, I was – for the first time – dressed in more than some blankets or a swaddling cloth. Not that it was a huge improvement, since what I was dropped into was basically a sack with arms. The only openings were for my head and hands, leaving my legs kicking in the bottom of the sack. The entire thing was slightly too large for me, so once the draw-string cuffs were secured snugly around my wrists the arms were effectively ‘puffed up’ around my own arms, and the collar was too wide even when it was buttoned up.
Still, it was a novel garment to me at the time and I would have liked to try putting my arms through the sleeves myself – an experiment in dressing myself! – but my mother had a worried air so I just relaxed and let her handle that, for which I was rewarded with a kiss on the brow and a reminder that I was a good girl.
Yes, a girl. It wasn’t a surprise – I’d figured that out after the first few times I got wiped down there. I might not have the neck strength yet to examine down there, but there had been a lack of any dangly bit down below so… oh well.
There might be some karmic judgement involved that the Bookwyrm, infamous for fathering ten thousand children on ten thousand women, would be the one bearing any children this time. (It wasn’t that many children, or that many women. You know how rumours can get. If I counted my grandchildren, then it would be more accurate).
It wasn’t all that distressing a discovery, really. Women, you see, are people too. I realise this may shock some people, but it’s true. I even have female friends in addition to the mothers of my children.
And if I really needed to address the reproductive side of things from a male side (or got sick of sitting down to empty my bladder), there were magical options.
Having dressed me, mother carried me out of the creche room where I’d spent all this life so far. I’d have loved to look around but even just the view from her arms was quite exciting after weeks or months confined to just one room – and most of the time to just one small part of it.
What I saw was an enclosed courtyard formed by two L-shaped buildings. Gates sealed off the two corners between the buildings, although they were open at the moment, and there was grass and a tree – chestnut I think – at one end of the yard. The other end was taken up by posts supporting laundry lines (they were in use so I didn’t have to guess at the function). The buildings seemed to be timber and plaster, with broad porches along the courtyard side. I saw notches that presumably held panels to enclose the porches during harsh weather but today didn’t seem to be such a day.
“Is he here yet?” mother asked Medra, who was standing near one of the open gates.
“Not yet,” the old woman told her. She reached out and pinched my cheeks. “Let’s get some colour in those cheeks of yours, little one. It’ll make you look less unhealthy.”
“There’s nothing unhealthy about her.” Mother pulled her away, sounding worried. “She’s a very robust little girl.”
“You can never tell with babies.” Medra sounded tranquil and even happy about that. I gathered it was just her way, but Alina flinched defensively. “I can see her veins beneath her skin.”
“She’s naturally pale and she’s not been outside much yet. It’s normal and she’ll grow out.”
Rather than taking the argument further – it was rather concerning if Medra, who was older and presumably more experienced, thought I might have health concerns – the old woman stiffened at a sound. “Ah, here he comes.”
Mother’s arms tightened a little more and she backed up a step, watching the gateway. Sure enough, half a dozen men entered, all dressed rather better than mother or Medra.
For most of them it was a matter of detail, for they wore the same long tunics and pants that seemed ubiquitous among the people I’d seen so far - save for children who often didn’t have the pants. But these clothes were better made, with additional embroidery and the sort of cut that told an educated eye that these had been tailored specifically for them, rather than adjusted from a few fairly standard sizes.
And the one who dominated the group effortlessly was even more striking, with long blue-black hair tied into a partial bun and the rest forming a long tail behind him. It was more blue than black, an unusual colour for one of entirely human heritage. His clothes were the finest and he wore an open-fronted robe over his tunic, rich silk lining visible and even more costly fur at the collar and cuffs.
Most striking all were the swords. A long, sturdy baldric supported a straight blade at one hip – as the scabbard as long as a man’s arm and the guard of blue jadesteel, suggesting the blade might be the same. A second, far longer sword with an elegant curve to it, was supported across his back; and while the hilt glittered with jewels and silver, I suspected that it too was jadesteel.
Daiklaves. The swords of Exalted, forged as much of magic as steel.
This man was Exalted, almost certainly Dragon-Blooded of the Air-aspect. His garments were blue, the colour associated with that element, and he had a mon – the traditional badge of a Dragon-Blooded family or gentes - emblazoned over his heart although from this angle I couldn’t see it clearly. Particularly as I was bobbed up and down by my mother curtseying.
“Exalted lord,” she offered in a humble greeting. Unencumbered by me, Medra clasped her hands in salute as she too offered obeisance.
He looked at mother, then at me. “I see, Alina. So, this is your child?” Huh. That wasn’t the local dialect, it was High Realm – a derivative of Old Realm used by the upper crust of the Blessed Isle. Not unlikely to have survived as a distinction, but not what I’d have expected.
“Yes, lord.” Mother held me out for him to inspect more closely, which gave me a look at him in return. The badge was a triangle inside a circle, differenced slightly from those I’d seen before. Last time I’d seen a mon (a symbol representing a family) looking like this it was born by members of Gens Tepet, a great house sworn to the Scarlet Empress and her dynasty. They had been good allies in those last times of Creation, it would please me if this man was a sign that they lived on.
His own inspection was curious, but fastidious, with his hands clasped behind him and no attempt to take hold of me himself. “I see that the rumours are correct. She has the stamp of a dragon already.”
Did I!? Well that was promising!
“I… would not wish…” Mother stammered.
“No, no. Quite right,” he added with a condescending smile. “You are an educated woman, Alina, so you will be aware it would be presumptuous to assume that the blood will flower. We may safely assume that the child has a strong touch of the blood, but that is still no certainty.”
He was right. The children of powerful Dragon-Blooded may show some of the physical traits of their supernatural parents but that alone is no guarantee of exaltation. Still, it was a very good sign. Even if I didn’t exalt, chances were good that
“Her father would be…”
Mother pulled me back against herself and looked down at me. “I was… seduced by one of your guests, lord.” The hesitation did not escape me. “Lord Ragara Nova is the only man whose company I… enjoyed at the dates on which my daughter has been conceived.”
The man gestured dismissively. “Nonsense, my dear Alina. The aftermath of your pregnancy has doubtless clouded your recollection of some trysts we enjoyed in the spring.”
Medra coughed. “Of course, my lord. Alina merely did not want to raise matters that could introduce discord between yourself and your lady wife.”
The Dragon-Blood turned his gaze upon her and I shivered for a second in my mother’s arms. Then he smiled coldly. “Such loyalty,” he murmured. Extending one hand he cupped mother’s head from behind and kissed her dispassionately upon the brow. I got a rather closer look at his chest than I really wanted and had to resist the urge to spit on his tunic.
“I shall acknowledge and adopt the child,” the Tepet declared. “I must set a good example to my sons and grandsons. Let there be no further discussion of Ragara Nova being the father. Our child shall grow up in the nursery of my household and be reared to all the advantages of her paternal ancestry.”
Mother hesitated and then curtseyed again. “May I ask the honour of granting her my name to take with her into her auspicious life, my lord?”
He inclined his head. “You understand then.”
“I… am not unfamiliar with such cases as have been mentioned in your correspondence.”
“It is indeed best that she not suffer any stigma from having a servant as her mother,” he agreed.
If he’d still been in range, I would have spat on him for sure. Maybe even gummed him if a finger came in reach!
Stigma! You snobby ass! I waved my arms as best I could. If my fingers had cooperated then certain ancient gestures of contempt would have been directed towards him. Mother jiggled me up and down a little in an attempt to calm me.
What the hell sort of society did this world have? Who’d brought that sort of nonsense in? We never tolerated it in Methelan or Denandsor!
“I believe that my household’s affairs in the city would benefit from direct oversight of a dedicated manager,” the man continued smoothly. “You have long deserved such advancement and the increased salary. It pleases me to have found a suitable avenue to reward you, and as the mother of my child there will be an additional stipend.”
Alina managed a “Thank you,” that didn’t sound bitter as much as resigned. “You do me great honour.”
“You have given me a gift,” the man replied blandly. “Perhaps a very great gift indeed. And our daughter Alina will have the best of lives. Surely you will be rewarded for this in the next life, but I shall do what I can in this one.”
Medra was the one who carried me out of the creche the next time I left it. After the Tepet left, mother had sat with me under the tree for a long while, playing with my little fingers – counting and recounting them as if one might go missing – and stroking my hair. I hugged her as best I could and, on the one opportunity given, I gave her cheek a soft baby kiss.
What else could I do? I couldn’t toddle after her when she was sent away - as she evidently was being, even if it came with what sounded like a career advancement. For that matter I couldn’t crawl after her either.
Ghosts and demons! I couldn’t even roll myself over. And wouldn’t that be a ridiculous sight, a baby rolling over and over down a road after a woman?
Eventually I tired myself out, which really didn’t take much in my current state. When I was nodding away, Alina carried me back to the creche and… I didn’t see her when I woke up. I realised, as I stared up at that humble ceiling, that I might never see her again.
It hit surprisingly hard. I’d only known her for a few weeks and out of everyone I’d known in my previous life, I could think of any number of people I’d spent more time with. I am not noted for being excessively sentimental. Kind, certainly, and courteous when the time suits it. Cruelty is no virtue. But I had become fond of her surprisingly fast. Perhaps, as a baby, I knew my mother by instinct.
Whatever the reason, I was notably tetchy the next day and managed enough control of my limbs to bat irritably at the bottle of warm milk that Medra tried to feed me from. Not enough to break it, even by knocking it from her hand on the floor – her grip was far
“Temper temper,” she chided me in a pleasant voice and let me wait it out before I gave in and accepted being fed.
“It’s as if she knows she’s one of the lord’s family now,” one of the other carers muttered.
Medra arched one eyebrow in a reproving manner. “She’s wise enough even this young to know someone is gone. And you should hope the little one doesn’t recall you being this sour if you meet her again.”
“She’s just a baby.”
“Just the lord’s baby now.” Medra wiped my face from where some milk had spilled despite my best efforts and wriggled one finger in front of me. “Little Alina’s aware enough of what’s around her. Who knows what she hears and makes of it?”
“Heh, well she can’t speak yet. She won’t understand.”
“Words, no. But tone. You always knew someone’s mood when you were her age, little Caitri. I remember that, from when you were in a cradle in this very room.”
The younger woman shut up sharply at that rejoinder.
Medra dressed me this time before we left. It was a finer garment than the sack-with-arms I’d been in last time, I guessed that it had been sent by the Lord’s family. It would not be proper for their new adoptee to be dressed like a servant or some such nonsense.
Still, it was sturdy and practical for a child to wear – and fitted me better if we’re being honest. It was a single garment with proper legs ending in little booties for my little footies. The cloth was sturdy and suitable for being cleaned easily, but the front had been embroidered in blue patterns and there was lace around the collar and the wrists, which felt soft to my fingers.
Noticing me rubbing at the lace, the old woman laughed lightly. “You’re moving up in the world, little Alina. You should start getting used to the finer things in life.”
Finer things? I could do better than this. “Ua!” Well, I could have done better than this, back when my fingers were more than an inch long and had some sort of grip.
She laughed at the look on my face and then picked up a little bonnet with more lace on it. I did my best to convey ‘you have got to be kidding’ with my expression. Medra laughed again, so she might have understood, but she pulled it over my head anyway and knotted it under my little chin.
I clawed at it with my tiny fingers, but I couldn’t get a good grip to pull the strap past me.
“Oh, you don’t like it, eh?” she told me, scooping me up from the cradle. “Well too bad, little Alina. You should have worn it last time but his lordship wouldn’t have been able to get as good a look at you.”
“It’s warm out, we need to protect you from sunstroke.” Medra pinched my cheek. “As pale as you are, you might sunburn and then you’d be a real cranky little miss.”
Sunburn. Oh. I was a mortal now. That sort of thing just wasn’t an issue for Exalted, but back before I’d exalted, I’d had sunburns and they’d been pretty miserable. I didn’t really want that when I couldn’t scratch or even explain I needed some salve. And the peeling… “Ooo.” I burbled compliantly.
“Ha-ha, it’s as if you understand.” The old woman jogged me up and down in her arms. (I say old, but I mean mortally. She was maybe fifty or sixty? It was probable the Tepet jerk was much older than she was, maybe even twice as much. Hopefully whoever the local leaders were, someone would remind him that he wasn’t part of a Dynastic house anymore and our realm was considerably more egalitarian than the moribund one the Scarlet Empress had built around herself.
With the happy thought of him getting his comeuppance, I let her slide me into some straps and then put her own arms through the loops. Much to my disappointment, this left me resting face first against her apron. I could feel one of her shoulder bones pressing my cheek through the high collared apron - I assume she didn’t want me dribbling on the clothes beneath.
“There we go,” Medra assured me, patting the top of the bonnet. “It’s a while since I carried a child like this but you don’t weigh anything worth mentioning.
Of course I don’t, I’m only a season or so old! It’s a bit extreme as a weight-loss programme though.
Since I wasn’t going to get much of a view, I closed my eyes for a moment, resting against her warm apron…
With a start I woke up. Had I drifted off again?
I had, I realised as the strapping was carefully taken off me. “There you go, how did she like being carried around?” asked someone.
Medra cradled me so I could see around. “Oh, Alina was fine, she slept the entire way.” Why was she so smug about that?
We were in a room not all that dissimilar from that I was used to – cribs and cots of various sizes, a thick carpet and some well-padded leather seats along the side of the room. As Medra turned, looking around for herself, I saw cupboards and a door leading through to what was probably a small kitchen and storeroom.
There were toys heaped in an open chest but no one was playing with them at the moment. The air was warm and still, I heard someone snoring softly.
“It’ll be nice to have another well-behaved child,” the other woman decided. She kept her voice low, perhaps not wanting to wake whoever was sleeping. “Some of the others are a little needy.”
Medra nodded and turned to lay me down in the nearest cot. It was smaller than I was used to – not that it made much difference at my size. I could stretch out my arms and just barely touch either side with my fingers, a feat just barely within my current coordination so I did just that. “Uaaaa?”
“There there,” she soothed me, and rubbed my cheek. “Hmm, you’re not too warm. That’s good.”
I clawed at the bonnet strap again, hoping that she’d get the hint. Unfortunately, she turned away to her companion. “I gather I’ll be helping to mind the nursery at night?”
“Yes. We wouldn’t normally put the newest member of the nursery staff on the night shift, but I gather that you have experience.” She looked down at me. “I see, she does have pale skin.” Reaching down the woman ran a measuring finger down my chin. Her touch was a little chill and I pulled my face away from her finger as best I could.
That didn’t seem to bother her and she ushered Medra aside to another cot. “There are three other children here at the moment. The twins are best apart. Little Nalan is delicate compared to his brother and Doreg keeps trying to play with him so we keep them at opposite sides of the room…”
They were too far away to hear clearly so I tried again to pull the bonnet strap away and over my chin so I could get rid of the thing. No luck, my fingers just wouldn’t dig in to get hold of it. I held one hand up and examined it ruefully. They weren’t up to the task yet.
There was something to what had been said about my skin. It was pale and veins running beneath it gave my hands a marble-like appearance. I was used to it, an Earth-aspected Exalt usually looked craggy and stonelike but I had been a little more polished in appearance during my last life. It might have carried over from my last life. If so, I wonder if my hair would be coppery again. The wisps of hair that had fallen out before had been lighter, but that didn’t mean much of anything at this age and it was too short to tell.
Running one hand up my face I finally found a little slack in the bonnet strap right in front of my ear and rubbed at it, trying to get a grip. Instead, all I managed to do was force it back onto my ear, pinching at it. “Wah!” Irritated I tried to work it back but it wasn’t working. “Wah! Wah!!” I complained.
“Naaaaa!” came a protesting wail from the next cot over.
“Oh, for the heaven’s sake!” the woman from earlier exclaimed, rushing back. She ignored me to scoop a baby out of the other cot. “I thought she was quiet!”
Medra reached me and pulled the bonnet strap off my ear. Then for a mercy she pulled the strap over my chin and peeled the offensive garment off my head entirely. “Oh, she just doesn’t like having her head covered,” she said tolerantly.
“Just don’t let her set the whole pack off,” the other woman hissed, rocking the pale-haired child soothingly in her arms. “Oh, this one’s hungry now…”
I was vaguely baffled as I was carried out into the sunlight of the porch of the manse that made up the centre of the household. Ishah, the woman who’d welcomed Medra (if that was the right word for it), was carrying me with the more familiar woman in attendance. Apparently, she was the chief of the household’s full-time nannies and therefore considered it her responsibility to carry me in what was apparently a formal occasion.
Although, I suppose that an adoption would be quite a formal occasion. I was dressed up in the little romper suit again for the occasion, although I’d been wearing a tiny tunic over my nappy all the time, in the nursery - as if it was beneath a child of the household to be laid to rest in just a glorified piece of towel - and the hated bonnet had returned.
None of that was what puzzled me though. No, the issue was what I could see. Ishah was holding me cradle-fashion so I could see up and off to the side and there was a vast mountain rearing up above the household. Not that it was that exclusive. Even from my quite limited vantage, it seemed likely that it loomed over half the countryside.
It wasn’t the largest mountain I’d ever seen – Meru, or the Imperial Mountain, was visible from anywhere on the Blessed Isle and some places across the Inland Sea. Creation being flat, only haze meant that you couldn’t see if from anywhere, but even so, anywhere in thousands of miles was ‘in the shadow’ of the Imperial Mountain.
But this one must be almost as large and it was roughly the same shape as well.
Had this been a conscious decision when my friends created the new Pole of Earth? Had Gethamane, the mountain city where we’d found it, been buried under this great peak? Why would they do so? Meru was grand, certainly, but it was also a massive pain in the neck for travel because it sat squarely in the middle of the Blessed Isle and forced massive detours to get around it. Even skyships had to avoid it because the air currents were turbulent at best.
Granted, much of that was damage from the opening battle of Usurpation, fifteen or so centuries ago, but surely something less ostentatious could have been done?
Unless somehow this was just some other mountain that had happened to form, but still…
I felt no pull towards it, but that was normal for a mortal even if it felt strange not to have an instinctive knowledge of where the Pole of Earth was. Or knowing the exact time. Would I need to own a clock?
I wasn’t taken into the manse itself, fortunately. Going into one the black stone ziggurat and not feeling the essence that must be distilled from the dragonlines by the geomancy would just be strange – like visiting one in the Underworld where the dragonlines were inflected and only the dead or those on the cusp of it could feel them.
Instead, the ceremony took place on broad steps outside, removed by an ornamental rail from the steps that led up the side of the ziggurat itself. Many of the household staff were assembled lower down them with blue-clad men and women to the sides. Mortal relatives, I guessed. There were two other children present, both around five or six years old, but none that were older. That made sense, I supposed. Likely they would be at school. Boarding schools were normal for the Scarlet Dynasty and since this Tepet branch apparently kept to those ways, I’d expect them to send their children away in that same fashion. An immaculate monk stood off to the side, separate from but notionally equal to the mortal family to judge by where he was stood.
The jerk was there, standing in the centre with a tall woman whose hair was caught up in a tiara that bore a greenish-black gem cut into a jagged triangle. As I was carried closer, I realised that it hadn’t been cut into that shape, it must have fallen into that shape naturally, for it was a hearthstone. Almost certainly that of the manse we were standing in front of. I wasn’t sure what that meant for the family dynamic though – usually the hearthstone was placed with the owner of the manse, who I would expect to be the head of the household.
There was nothing unusual in the jerk being junior – women were just as likely as men to head a household of a gente. After all, exaltation didn’t care about one’s gender so why would the Exalted. But for him to claim me as a bastard and bring me in suggested that he was very confident in his position. Was he her sibling perhaps? Their faces didn’t suggest any particular likeness and the woman lacked any obvious markers of exaltation save that no dynast would ever allow a mere mortal to hold a hearthstone…
At what seemed to be almost the last moment, a young-looking woman stepped out to join the couple at the head of the ceremony. Save for the hairstyle, she looked very much like the older woman so I guessed she was a daughter or younger sister. They stood together by a table and brazier, the former holding paper, ink bottles and brushes so there was probably going to be… shudder… paperwork.
Ugh. I had patsies to do that for me. Well, I doubt they’d want me to sign anything. I doubt I could even hold a brush.
“My family and honoured guests,” declaimed the jerk. “I welcome you to this happy occasion as my family welcomes a new member. Let all the heavens watch us, as the Imperial Mountain does this day, as my daughter Alina is formally enrolled into House Tepet.”
There was a murmur of approval as Ishah and Medra brought me forwards and I was handed over to the man.
He did at least seem to know what he was doing and kept my head supported properly as he displayed me to the gathering. “I, Tepet Demarol, born of the line of Tepet, proclaim that this is my child Alina. She is mine to support, mine to teach and to discipline, mine to protect and to employ for the greater glory of House Tepet, of the Scarlet Dynasty and of all the Realm.”
Uh, help? “Miii?” My query was lost in the applause.
The tiaraed woman accepted me next and gave me a long and assessing look before nodding in apparent satisfaction. Turning me in her arms to look out at those on the steps, she inadvertently let me see that Demarol – I knew that name from somewhere, I just couldn’t place it! – was signing his name with a brush on a document laid out on a table at the top of the steps.
“I, Tepet Yrina, acknowledge that this child Alina is the child of my husband’s loins,” she declared in a confident voice. I wasn’t sure for a moment what she intended to do about that fact. “I formally and before you all, acknowledge that this child is from this day my own child also, in the eyes of the law, to guide and educate in the traditions of the Realm and to extend and strengthen our house.”
Well, I hadn’t expected her to dash my brains out on the steps but that was more than I’d expected. Bastards usually don’t get that much attention in the gentes, even if their potential to exalt makes them valuable. Still, I was relieved to be passed back to Ishah and watched as Yrina took the brush from Demarol and quickly inked her own name beside his own.
They repeated this twice more on further pieces of parchment, which I guessed must be triplicate copies. Very officious.
With this done, the younger woman took out a bowl from the brazier beside the table and tipped a small puddle of wax onto each document. Removing a ring from his thumb, Demarol stamped it down on the wax, impressing it with what was probably the Tepet mon, or whatever personal variant of it he used.
“I stand as witness,” the young woman declared, lifting a brush and dipping it into a separate pot of ink. In red ink she added what I guessed was her own signature. “Here, on the last day of Ascending Fire, Seven Hundred and Forty-Eighth year of Her Most Scarlet Majesty, Empress of the Blessed Isle and Shogun of the Realm, I, Tepet -”
Wait, wait wait! “Uaaauaaaa!?” 748th year of the WHAT?
The woman paused and gave Ishah a firm look. It was largely unnecessary, the nanny clearly had experience and I found a rubber pacifier stuffed into my mouth to shut me up as the monk came up to add his own signature as a witness.
The Scarlet Empress had reigned for over eight centuries! By the time I unleashed the Kukla, it had been… uh, eight hundred and sixty-nine years from the Great Contagion, which should almost exactly match up to the years of her reign, since she declared herself Empress right around the end of the Contagion and of the Balorian Crusade that followed it.
Had I gone back in time!?
That’s… impossible. You can’t travel backwards in time! It’s flatly one of the very few immutable laws of Creation’s very structure. Not even the Primordials could do that – which is a good thing or their overthrow by the Incarnae and the Exalted would have been undone. The linear progression of time underlies fundamentally every aspect of Creation. It’s why the wyldlings outside hate us so – causality is alien and monstrous in their eyes.
The only times anything had ever come close to breaking time had been when the Calendar of Setesh was damaged, severing time in the Underworld from that of Creation until it was repaired at the end of the Spectre War that followed the Usurpation, and the Cascading Years when civil war among the Solar Exalted broke… Creation… oh.
The first thing that went through my mind was: Radiant Bright Wing must never know. After that I got to obscenities and profanities, of which I know quite a few.
“I think she may be teething,” Ishah whispered as she handed me over to Medra.
The older woman nodded sagely and I continued to swear to myself. No wonder Tepet Demarol was acting like a dynast at the height of the Scarlet Dynasty’s power. This really was the height of their power. If this was one of the households of House Tepet, then the Exalt was only two steps removed from the single most politically powerful person in all Creation.
I didn’t really have a detailed knowledge of the Tepet sub-Gentes at this time – most of my acquaintance with the Tepet had been years from now, after they’d been forced through a brutal rebuilding after the horrific losses they took fighting the Bull of the North around the time of…
My eyes went wide as the implications sank in. It had been more than a century, but there were so many tragedies and disasters that were now in the future and might be averted. So much I could do, now that…
Then a new sensation sank in and I screwed my eyes shut again with frustration. Right. First things first. Now, how to signal to Medra that I needed a fresh nappy?